When an Unexplained Sanctions Ruling Does, or Does Not, Suffice to Permit Meaningful Appellate Review

Two Decisions

1. Arugu v. City of Plantation, 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 22647 (11th Cir. Nov. 8, 2011) (Rule 11 and § 1927 sanctions):

We review for abuse of discretion a district court's decision to deny sanctions, costs, and attorney's fees. *** "A district court abuses its discretion if it applies an incorrect legal standard, follows improper procedures in making the determination, or bases the decision upon findings of fact that are clearly erroneous." ***

Abuse of discretion review, however, requires something for us to review. When ruling on a motion for attorney's fees or sanctions, the district court must provide an explanation of the basis for its ruling that is sufficient to allow for meaningful appellate review. See Thompson v. RelationServe Media, Inc., 610 F.3d 628, 637 (11th Cir. 2010) ("In this case, however, the district court's conclusory Rule 11 analysis is not sufficient to permit meaningful appellate review" because "its one paragraph order provides no explanation of the basis for its ruling . . . ."); Tilton v. Playboy Entm't Group, Inc., 554 F.3d 1371, 1378-79 (11th Cir. 2009) ("Although an award of attorney's fees is ordinarily a matter for the discretion of the district court, an order on attorney's fees must allow meaningful review." (citation omitted)); cf. Gilmere v. City of Atlanta, Ga., 931 F.2d 811, 814 (11th Cir. 1991) ("The district court, however, must explain its reasoning in determining a reasonable attorney's fee to give this court an adequate and informed basis for review.").

Although the district court did find that Arugu's motion for voluntary dismissal was itself not made in bad faith, its denial of the City's motion for sanctions and attorney's fees was not accompanied by any explanation, analysis, or findings. The court gave no reason for rejecting the City's contentions that Argu had filed a frivolous § 1983 claim and had unreasonably multiplied the proceedings. We therefore vacate the order denying sanctions and attorney's fees and remand for the district court to revisit the issue, make appropriate findings, and explain its decision. We leave open the possibility that the court may decide the sanctions and attorney's fees issue differently on remand, but we do not imply any view about whether it should.

2. Doe v. Elmbrook School Dist., 658 F.3d 710 (7th Cir. 2011):

We have affirmed unexplained or incompletely explained rulings when the grounds for the decision were "'apparent on the record,'" Local 232, Allied Indus. Workers of America v. Briggs & Stratton Corp., 837 F.2d 782, 788 (7th Cir. 1988) (quoting Szabo Food Serv., Inc. v. Canteen Corp., 823 F.2d 1073, 1084 (7th Cir. 1987)). See Wolf, 574 F.3d at 410-11 (denial of attorney's fees); Dugan v. Smerwick Sewerage Co., 142 F.3d 398, 408 (7th Cir. 1998) (denial of discovery sanctions); Ross v. City of Waukegan, 5 F.3d 1084, 1087-88 (7th Cir. 1993) (affirming a "three-line minute order" denying leave to file an amended complaint and stating that "[a]lthough a more plenary explanation of the matter would have significantly aided us in our evaluation . . . , we cannot fault the trial court for going to the heart of the matter"); Local 232, Allied Indus. Workers of America, 837 F.2d at 788 (affirming denial of sanctions motion and stating that "[a]lthough we welcome a district court judge's explanation every time a Rule 11 motion is decided, we believe that . . . the reasons for its denial are apparent on the record").

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